How to identify possible speech disorders in children
Most adults who do not know a child should be able to understand 75-95% of what the youngster is saying by the time the child gets to the age of 3-3.5 years.
At that age, the child will still most likely be making numerous sound errors and some of their pronunciation may be off in many cases. Even so, they should be able to communicate clearly.
If they are still struggling with making certain word-sounds, it might indicate they have a speech disorder.
Speech disorders in children
There are too many potential conditions to explore them all in detail here. Broadly speaking, they may come about though as a result of:
- hearing disorders (children need to hear sounds to emulate them);
- some physical conditions (e.g. cleft palate or autism);
- certain psychological syndromes (e.g. traumas).
Children develop at very different rates to each other and applying milestone dates can be deeply misleading. For example, if your child is still making some unusual speech sounds at the age of three, it does not necessarily mean they have a speech disorder.
Only a qualified medical practitioner can make such a diagnosis.
Many causes of speech disorders or potential disorders are also detected at a very early age by the various paediatric tests which are now commonplace, such as hearing tests.
However, there are some things you may wish to look out for (this only applies to children aged 3 or over):
- people from outside your immediate family have trouble understanding your child;
- your child is still speaking in a fashion more commonly found in much younger children – though it can be very difficult to be objective about this;
- a child that is stuttering or who seems unwilling/unable to make intelligible word sounds on a regular basis, relying on grunts and gestures instead;
- when the child seems to be unwilling or unable to learn the correct names for things. For example, if your child insists on calling a cat a “nyah” (and other examples) even after you have made regular gentle efforts over time to correct them;
- lisps and difficulties in pronouncing certain syllable sounds like “sh” or “ch” – though this is rarely an indicator of trouble in younger children;
- the constant use of the wrong words for things based on phonics, such as calling a “cat” a “mat” or a “fish” a “dish”. Note that frequent errors here are not cause for concern, this only refers to where your child does not seem to be improving over time;
- where your child appears to have made little progress in their language skills over perhaps 12 months;
- if their word sounds are very nasal or very guttural;
- where the child seems distressed by trying to speak and/or unwilling to try and experiment.
In all these situations, there is probably nothing to be concerned about but it is important to get a professional check to put your mind at rest.
Not cause for concern
Most children make many minor errors when they are learning to speak. These are usually very amusing and typically fade after a few days, weeks or months.
They are virtually never cause for worry and include:
- short-term wrong pronunciations of words – e.g. “plink” for “pink”;
- temporary odd word substitutions, such as “el” in a sentence instead of “or”;
- difficulties in getting the pronunciation right in complex words;
- dropping the end of a word or abbreviating it, like “dins” instead of “dinner”;
- missing out the middle of words, such as “holdays” instead of “holidays”;
- inventing their own words for no obvious reason, providing they do not become permanently incorporated into their vocabulary.
As day care providers, we become very closely familiar with the children in our charge.
If we have any concerns about their language skills, we would bring this immediately to the attention of parents.